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100 years after gaining citizenship, Native Americans face barriers to voting

Report from House Administration Democrats comes after bills to expand rights stalled

Pins to promote voting by Native Americans are at a display counter during a cultural meeting at the Comanche Nation fairgrounds in Lawton, Okla., on Sept. 30, 2023.
Pins to promote voting by Native Americans are at a display counter during a cultural meeting at the Comanche Nation fairgrounds in Lawton, Okla., on Sept. 30, 2023. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

A century ago, Congress granted citizenship to Native Americans, providing them the right to vote. But a new report from House Administration Committee Democrats argues that the nation has failed to keep that promise of voting rights because casting a ballot is simply too difficult in many indigenous communities.

“Despite the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, states and localities continue to deny Native peoples the full rights of U.S. citizenship, including the most fundamental right — the right to vote,” Rep. Joseph D. Morelle, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking member, said in a statement. “Native peoples continue to face substantial and unique barriers to equal participation in federal, state, and local elections.”

“Voting for Native Peoples: Barriers and Policy Solutions” lays out logistical and practical barriers to voting on tribal lands. Polling locations are few and far between in these rural areas, often requiring long car trips on dirt roads. Some voters living on the Navajo Nation, which covers large swaths of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, trek nearly 100 miles to cast a ballot. Given indigenous poverty rates, these trips aren’t just time consuming, but can be prohibitively expensive as well.

Some of the voting issues highlighted by the report are a product of the challenges of reservation life in general, including poor mail service that makes mail-in voting difficult and a lack of standardized residential addresses on some reservations that, combined with indifferent state election officials, makes registering to vote tougher.

The report also takes aim at state laws that require voter identification but do not recognize tribal IDs; the failure to provide voting-related materials in indigenous languages; and electoral maps that split native communities into different districts, diluting their political strength.

In recent years, Democrats have introduced legislation that would add polling sites, expand the use of early in-person voting and ballot drop boxes, and expand voter registration access on tribal lands. But besides Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, no Republicans signed on as co-sponsors.

Elements of that bill were also part of a broader voting proposal, dubbed the Freedom to Vote Act, that passed the House in 2022 when Democrats had control but could not overcome a filibuster in the Senate. That measure and one dubbed the Voting Rights Advancement Act would make registering and voting easier and increase federal supervision of local voting precincts that had violated voting rights. Both measures faced  Republican opposition.

The report details the history of how the sovereign Native nations were subsumed into the United States in piecemeal measures often motivated by white desires to subjugate indigenous people and exploit — or outright steal — tribal lands.

These sad chapters of U.S. history sit in stark contrast to the nation’s loftiest ideals. In the same Declaration of Independence that proclaimed the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” Natives are described as “the merciless Indian Savages.” The same Constitution that sought to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” excluded “Indians not taxed,” from counting toward apportionment to the House, and thus from representation.

“When this nation took its first steps onto the world stage, we did so with a defiant declaration that governments are ‘instituted’ among citizens rather than kings, ‘deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ The wellspring of sovereignty stems from the people who grant their assent to the rule of law, who lend their faith to the collective efforts of their neighbors — this is an ever-enduring truth,” the report’s introduction reads. “This conception of liberty is infallible; many of those tasked with protecting, defending, and expanding that liberty have not been.”

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was supposed to right these historic wrongs by extending U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans, including the right to vote, without diminishing their tribal rights. But even after it passed, some states prevented some Natives from voting, leading the solicitor of the Department of Interior to issue a formal opinion in 1938 that those states were violating the 15th Amendment, which forbids denying the vote “on account of race.”

But practical barriers have remained, and “the promise of full democratic participation remains elusive and purposefully subverted at many turns,” the report concludes.

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